LED Street Lights: Energy Savings Likely to Outweigh Initial Costs for These Three Cities

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LED streetlights on the Lowry Avenue Bridge in MinnesotaLED streetlights, such as those found on the Lowry Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, Minn., can provide better visibility while reducing emissions and cutting cities’ energy bills by more than 60%. (Joe Ferrer/Getty Images)

Nearly every boulevard, avenue, road or side street in America is lined with opportunities to reduce energy consumption and save important municipal dollars. Street lights in the United States are estimated to use as much energy as six million households, and the energy bills cost local governments more than $10 billion per year.

Due to recent advances of LED and other solid state lighting options, modern streetlights have the potential to cut those figures by 50% or more.

This is why the Obama Administration has challenged mayors around the country to retrofit their lights and install modern, high efficiency lighting. The Presidential Challenge for Advanced Outdoor Lighting sets a goal of upgrading at least 1.5 million poles by May 2016, tripling the previous goal to upgrade 500,000.

The challenge is backed by extensive resources in the Better Buildings Outdoor Lighting Accelerator, which contains financial calculators, case studies, and more. The Solid State Street Lighting Consortium, a DOE-managed peer group of cities pursuing lighting upgrades, also has technical specifications and market reports to help cities through the procurement process.

Thanks to early adopters like Raleigh, Los Angeles and Seattle, many of the concerns surrounding technical issues and public acceptance have been debunked in the last few years, illuminating the path for others to follow. Costs for both energy use and maintenance have proven lower under the new systems. In surveys conducted for the city of Seattle, more than 85% of respondents approved of the new lights.

For many city leaders, though, the decision isn’t quite that clear. As with any major retrofit, the upfront capital cost can be daunting. Los Angeles, for example, has replaced more than 140,000 lights in four years, yielding an annual savings of more than 60%. Even with a payback period estimated at just seven years, the initial cost has been reported to be $57 million. Given the constraints on local budgets, it can be difficult to justify a costly upgrade for a system that is already functioning.

Additionally, some city officials may be waiting to see if those installation costs continue to drop before they convert. Between 2011 and 2013, the cost of new LED streetlights fell an estimated 50%. Even then, the price was four times that of high-pressure sodium lights. In the short term, waiting may result in further savings and an even more efficient LED product.

Nonetheless, the takeaway is overwhelmingly positive. A tipping point seems to have been reached as the rate of adoption accelerates. If the President’s challenge is met, and the 1.5 million poles achieve the same efficiency and CO2 reductions as Los Angeles, it will create a reduction of more than 369,000 tons of emissions each year.

Headshot1-CMartinAbout the Author: Cooper Martin is the Program Director for the Sustainable Cities Institute at the NLC. Follow the program on twitter @sustcitiesinst.